When The College Board announced on Tuesday, October 19 that the average tuition at a public, four-year college or university had increased by 10.5 percent this academic year to $5,132, I doubt that any of you were surprised by that headline in your local newspaper. After all, you are – or will be – writing the checks to cover much of these ever-rising tuition costs.

What may surprise you on many levels, however, are the stories behind the headlines.

For instance, the percentage tuition increase at four-year public schools is in double digits for a second consecutive year, this after a decade of single-digit percentage increases. Much of the blame for back-to-back big tuition hikes can be placed in state capitals, where support for higher education has weakened in not just in recent legislative sessions, but over a 25-year period, through good economic times and bad.

This lack of support by state government is perplexing to public schools, since they are often a significant driver of a state’s economic engine. With legislators in 47 states up for re-election this year, you should ask the incumbent – and the challenger – in your local district where they stand with respect to support for higher education. This support is crucial or tuition hikes will likely continue at a rate much higher than the Consumer Price Index.

Another story behind the headline has to do with the ways that families are meeting the cost of higher education. Loans, rather than grants, are playing an increasing role in helping students pay for college. And loans through banks and other private sources accounted for 16 percent of education loans in 2003, compared with 7 percent in 1998.

The College Board study did not include credit-card debt, which as many as one-quarter of college students may be relying on to finance their education. There has also been sharp growth in unsubsidized federal loans to students and in PLUS loans to parents.

Left uncovered in most of the media reports following The College Board’s announcement were the findings from a new companion report, Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society, also released on Tuesday.

Education Pays shows that investment in higher education has a significant return both for the individual and for society as a whole. The report documents the fact that higher levels of education result in higher earnings for all racial/ethnic groups. It also shows that college graduates display higher levels of civic participation than others, and that the children of college graduates attain higher levels of education.

Commenting on Education Pays, College Board President Gaston Caperton said: “Most of us know that there are significant benefits that come with a college degree. That is why so many American work so hard to make the dream of college a reality for their children. But it is very powerful to see such strong and varied statistical evidence of the individual and societal benefits.”

I agree, and encourage you to review the full set of College Board reports here.